Danum Valley is an ancient tropical forest on the northeastern tip of Borneo with an outstanding complement of flora and fauna.  It is the largest remaining area of virgin undisturbed lowland rainforest on the island spanning 170 square miles.  Recognized as one of the world’s most complex ecosystems, Danum Valley lies along the upper reaches of the Segama River and is flanked by vast timber concession acreage. The valley is home to rare and endangered species like the Sumatran rhino, the Asian elephant, the clouded leopard, and the orangutan.

The Borneon orangutan, or Pongo pygmaeus, can trace its ancestral line for 9 million years to Sivapithecus, a Miocene hominoid from Turkey.  At one time the world’s wild orangutan population climbed into the hundreds of thousands.  Today, Pongo pygmaeus has been reduced to less than 20,000 individuals. Poaching, illegal logging, mining, and the conversion of forests to agriculture have played a role in the rapidly changing environment of the great ape.

It is under these threatening conditions that the male orangutans pursue the coveted position of alpha.  They assert their dominance by doing three things:  First, they pound their chests.  Not in discrete bouts of rapidly delivered beats, but for prolonged periods of time.  So much time, in fact, that they cause themselves physical harm.  The desire to be alpha overrides their sensory for pain. Next, they screech and grunt until the oxygen to their brain is restricted and they become delusional.  Finally, they excrete enormous amounts of poop and toss it at the other apes.  This is how the alpha male is decided.  Self-inflicted pain, histrionics, and dung throwing.

In the world of orangutans, the alpha holds the position of endurance and power, but is not to be mistaken as leader.  He is not designed to lead. The alpha’s job is to protect territory and fight or frighten off invaders. With the alpha in place, the apes co-exist in a state of harmony.  The troop works together to find and harvest food.  They live like families and treat extended family members with courtesy. They even create pathways to food sources knowing these pathways will be used by other apes in the territory.

It is not a stretch to recognize their similarities to man. In fact, the word “orangutan” comes from the Malay words “orang” (man) and “(h)utan” (forest).  Hence, “man of the forest.”  Neither is it a stretch to draw leadership lessons from this primate community:

  1. The alpha position is a responsibility, not a rank.  Being the leader means to be in a position to help others achieve their goals — employees, customers, investors, and community.  As Ken Blanchard says, “Leadership is not something you do to people. It is something you do with people.”
  2. Power is used to protect the troops, not impose burden.  It’s the leaders’ job to set the vision and direction, then inspire and equip the team to achieve results.  Used to maximum effect, leadership power will empower the organization and its employees. Used carelessly, it will disempower them, and can lead to a culture of fear.
  3. Delusional, dung-slinging behavior denotes endurance and power, not leadership.  Part of a leader’s role is to solve problems, and problems can lead to stress.  But yelling at people, demeaning them, and using profanity are not signs of leadership. They are signs of fear, insecurity, and distrust as demonstrated by Rutgers ex-basketball coach Mike Rice.
  4. Power is not leadership. Hoarding power can lead to disengaged, clock-punching employees who leave their hearts and imaginations at the door.  Sharing the power to give input takes true strength, from a true leader, and allows everyone in the organization to engage and grow.

Like the orangutans, today’s organizations are threatened by competitors, territory fragmentation, and resource depletion.  Leaders who use their power wisely can create a culture of teamwork, respect, and sustainability.

Question:  How does the way you use your power impact your organization’s culture?



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